Acting teacher and director Milton Katselas dies at age 75

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Acting teacher and director Milton Katselas died Friday at age 75, after suffering from heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. He began the Beverly Hills Playhouse in 1978 and taught acting classes there to noted actors including George Clooney and Gene Hackman. Katselas is survived by a sister and two brothers.

Katselas directed an off-Broadway production of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, and received a Tony Award nomination for his 1969 direction of Butterflies are Free. Actress Blythe Danner won a Tony Award for her role in Butterflies are Free under Katselas' direction. He moved to California to direct the film version of that play, and went on to direct films and television movies. Actress Eileen Heckart received an Academy Award for her role in the film version of Butterflies are Free.

Katselas directed the San Francisco and Los Angeles productions of the play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead! by playwright James Kirkwood, Jr. In his author's notes in the publication of the script, Kirkwood acknowledged Katselas, and wrote that the plays were "directed with incredible energy and enthusiasm by Milton Katselas, to whom I am extremely indebted".

Katselas directed the television movie Strangers: Story of a Mother and Daughter, and actress Bette Davis received an Emmy Award for her role in the movie. Katselas taught many famous actors including Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Gere, Robert Duvall, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Goldie Hawn, Christopher Walken, Burt Reynolds, George C. Scott, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Baldwin, and Patrick Swayze. Katselas was credited with being able to nurture actors with raw talent so that they could develop strong Hollywood careers. He utilized innovative techniques in his courses - one course called "Terrorist Theatre" had a simple premise: successfully get an acting role within six weeks or leave the course.

He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to parents who had immigrated from Greece, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon. He studied acting with Lee Strasberg in New York at the Actors Studio, and received advice from directors Joshua Logan and Elia Kazan.

Katselas was a prominent Scientologist, and a July 2007 profile on Katselas in The New York Times Magazine observed that some of his students stopped taking courses at the Beverly Hills Playhouse because they felt they had been pressured to join the Church of Scientology. According to the article, Katselas credited Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard "for much of his success in life", and one of his students works at Scientology's Celebrity Centre. The article commented that some in Los Angeles view the Beverly Hills Playhouse as "a recruitment center for Scientology".

Katselas met L. Ron Hubbard after moving to California, and began studying Scientology in 1965. The New York Times Magazine reported that he had reached the level of "Operating Thetan, Level 5, or O.T. V." in 2007. According to The New York Times Magazine when Scientologists proceed up the "The Bridge to Total Freedom" they learn the story of Xenu, and that: "75 million years ago the evil alien Xenu solved galactic overpopulation by dumping 13.5 trillion beings in volcanoes on Earth, where they were vaporized, scattering their souls." A Church of Scientology publication, Source, lists Katselas as reaching O.T. V. in 1989.

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Is it appropriate to recruit for Scientology in an acting school?
Cquote1.svg He is brilliant, and knows me so well as a person and an actress that he gets the most out of me. Cquote2.svg

Jenna Elfman

Though some actors felt pressured to join the Church of Scientology after taking courses at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, at least one individual felt Katselas was not active enough with the organization. Actress Jenna Elfman left the Beverly Hills Playhouse because she felt Katselas was not committed enough to Scientology. Katselas had previously directed Elfman in half of Visions and Lovers: Variations on a Theme, two one-act plays about relationships that he had written himself. In 1999 Katselas had planned to adapt the script of Visions and Lovers to a film version, and Elfman was set to reprise her role from the play. In an article in Variety about the project, Elfman commented on her experience working with Katselas: "He is brilliant, and knows me so well as a person and an actress that he gets the most out of me."

Other prominent Scientologist actors who have studied under Katselas include Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Lee, and Leah Remini. According to Rolling Stone, Katselas also recruited actress Kelly Preston to Scientology. Actress Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), told Scientology publication Celebrity that Katselas motivated her to get more active in Scientology, and she stated she took the organization's "Purification Rundown" and her life "took off completely".

Cquote1.svg Life is an endless unspooling of art, of acting, of painting, of architecture. And where did I learn that? From Milton. Cquote2.svg

Terry Jastrow

Anne Archer was introduced to Scientology while studying at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, as was former Scientologist and now outspoken critic actor Jason Beghe. Beghe told Roger Friedman of FOX News in April 2008 that "He [Katselas] gets kickbacks", and that he was brought to a Scientology center by fellow Beverly Hills Playhouse classmate Bodhi Elfman, Jenna Elfman's husband. In a 1998 article for Buzz Magazine, Randye Hoder wrote "In his class, Katselas is careful not to label anything as a tenet of Scientology, but there is no question that the church's influence seeps into the playhouse."

Anne Archer's husband and fellow Scientologist, producer Terry Jastrow, commented to The New York Times Magazine that Katselas changed the way he experiences life on a day-to-day basis: "I go out in the world and look at human behavior now. I see a woman or man interacting with a saleslady, and I see the artistry in it. Life is an endless unspooling of art, of acting, of painting, of architecture. And where did I learn that? From Milton."

Actor Anthony Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer spoke highly of Katselas in a 2002 interview with San Francisco Chronicle: "He's this wonderfully intuitive teacher and his premise is basically: The only real barriers are the ones we put in front of ourselves. If you say, 'My character wouldn't do that' -- bollocks! Ultimately it's you who wouldn't say that. Who knows what your character might do." In the acknowledgements of her 2004 autobiography Are You Hungry, Dear?: Life, Laughs, and Lasagna, actress Doris Roberts wrote: "I thank my friend and acting teacher, the incredible Milton Katselas, for his insights, wisdom, and inspiration, which have helped make me the actress that I am."

Cquote1.svg I really care about the craft of acting. It's absolutely necessary to take the time and patience to really develop an actor. Cquote2.svg

Milton Katselas

Katselas authored two books: Dreams Into Action: Getting What You Want, first published in 1996 by Dove Books, and Acting Class: Take a Seat, which came out earlier this month. Dreams Into Action, a New York Times Bestseller, sought to modify motivational acting exercises to the field of business.

In an interview in the 2007 book Acting Teachers of America, Katselas commented on his experiences as an acting teacher over the years: "I have very special teachers here at the Beverly Hills Playhouse—some have been with me for over twenty-five years. I believe that to make a difference over the long haul, we need to train teachers. I really care about the craft of acting. It's absolutely necessary to take the time and patience to really develop an actor."

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